Today in the Catholic Church, and in some Anglican and Lutheran Churches as well, is the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. It originated in 1264 and is observed every year to celebrate what we call the Real Presence – Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist that we receive in Holy Communion.
There is a deep irony in this year’s celebration in that all of you joining me online – and millions more elsewhere in COVID-19 affected areas – are unable to physically receive the gift of Holy Communion that we celebrate today.
After 83 days of lockdown in which churches have been closed, five churches in our diocese will re-open from tomorrow for private prayer, after the necessary risk assessment and health and safety requirements have been implemented. Then, after a short trial period, other churches may follow. However, I think it is still a long way off before it will be deemed safe enough for us to gather for Mass and receive Holy Communion.
For many, if not most of us, the novelty of lockdown has worn off. After all, there are only so many times we can re-organise kitchen cupboards, clear out wardrobes, re-arrange furniture or do a lot more to the garden. It’s wearying now for many people, especially those of us who have been self-isolating or in quarantine and been without the warm human contact of those we love. So is there anything in today’s celebration that might give us a bit of a lift even though we cannot physically take part in the Eucharist?
In the First Reading (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16) we have Moses reminding fellow Israelites of all God has done for them. They have been liberated from slavery in Egypt and are now a free people. In their search for a land of their own, wandering 40 years in the wilderness, he tells them they must not forget how God cared for them throughout, protecting them from harm and providing nourishment in times of famine and drought. Their God, he reminded them, “fed you with manna which neither you nor your ancestors had known”.
The manna Moses refers to was a naturally occurring carbohydrate, similar to flaky wafers and tasting like honey, which emerged under a layer of dewfall. (It still can be found today in a small corner of the island of Sicily.) The Israelites came to see this food as a metaphor for all God had done for them. They described it as ‘bread from heaven’, a summary description of the ways in which God cared for and provided for his people.
In the Gospel of St John today (6:51-58) Jesus alludes to this manna when describing himself as the ‘bread come down from heaven’. He is preaching in the Temple, most likely on the text of our First Reading and goes on to claim that the sustenance God provided for their ancestors is now being offered in a new way through him. He, Jesus, is the ‘living bread come down from heaven’. The manna their ancestors feasted on did not keep them alive for ever whereas the ‘bread’ or ‘manna’ he now offers – through having a relationship with him – will lead people to ‘live forever’.
To describe how he gives himself completely, as nourishment from heaven, Jesus uses the terms ‘eating’, ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’. These words are not to be interpreted literally (and would not have been at the time). The scandal he caused was not from using these terms but in placing himself as greater than Moses and the equal of God. ‘Eating’, ‘body’ and ‘blood’ are metaphors he used for having a relationship of faith with him, one in which he holds nothing back. He gives himself – the entire person, flesh/body and blood – totally to us so that we might have what he calls ‘eternal life’. Eternal life is not just life after death but an authentic or fullness of life, here and now, through our communion with Jesus.
For Catholics like us who have been so used to celebrating the Eucharist where and as often as we wished, we are now akin to Moses and the Israelites in a wilderness. Ours is the barren desert of lockdown, isolation and quarantine. We are starved of many things we took for granted, never dreaming they’d be taken from us, including participation in Mass and physically receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord.
But Holy Communion is not the only way in which the Lord feeds or provides nourishment for us. For instance, through the live-streaming of Mass, people are discovering and appreciating – perhaps for the first time – the Word of God in the Scriptures. Mass is now more accessible to many, including people too frail to leave their homes in recent years. On-line Mass has become part of the structure of people’s day in which many are ‘receiving’ or being in communion with the Lord in other ways, in the comfort of their homes, and in a way they could not do before. So it’s not all doom and gloom, as a parishioner reminded me in an email yesterday: ‘there are some amazing things which will have come out of the experience of this pandemic – tragic as it has been.’
So, perhaps, one of the clear messages for us in the Scriptures this morning comes through Moses speaking to the Israelites: remember all the Lord has done and is doing for us now (even in our wilderness of lockdown). It may not be obvious to us now but in years to come we will look back on these days and realise we were being ‘given manna from heaven’ even if we did not know it at the time.
Holy Name, Jesmond
14 June 2020